As the abrasive blasting industry awaits long-stalled federal regulations on Coal Combustion Residuals, the Environmental Protection Agency has reaffirmed its desire to keep hands off CCR products that are “beneficially reused.”
And there are signs that the much-delayed rule itself may at last move forward.
In a new White House response to a petition by coal-ash advocates, EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus says the agency is nearly ready to release “a process evaluating the environmental acceptability of coal ash that is beneficially used.”
Two Disposal Options
It has been more than 20 months since the EPA first proposed a rule that spelled out two regulatory alternatives for the design and management of coal ash disposal facilities.
This would be the first time that EPA has regulated disposal of CCRs, generated by electric utilities and independent power producers.
Both options in the EPA’s proposed rule fall under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). One would regulate the residuals as hazardous waste; the other would regulate them as non-hazardous.
The “hazardous waste” option would have costly implications for the $200 million abrasive blasting industry, which has vigorously opposed that designation.
In September 2011, after nearly a year of inaction on the rule, an industry-supported group called Citizens for Recycling First petitioned the Obama administration to “protect coal ash recycling by promptly enacting disposal regulations that do NOT designate coal ash a ‘hazardous waste.’"
“Citizens for Recycling First believes the best solution for coal ash disposal problems is to quit throwing coal ash away,” the petition says.
The group contends that continuing uncertainty over the rule and the future of coal ash disposal has begun to reduce the amount of coal ash recycled for beneficial reuse as abrasives, roofing granules, road traction material, wastewater filtration system component, mineral fillers in asphalt and other purposes.
About 136 million tons of coal ash was produced in 2008, with “over 44 percent” of it recycled, according to the American Coal Ash Association.
But now, the petition says, recycling “is threatened by irresponsibly labeling coal ash as ‘toxic’ or ‘hazardous.’”
In one month, the petition gathered more than 5,400 signatures—enough to warrant an administration response.
White House Response
That response, titled “The Safe Beneficial Reuse of Coal Ash,” came last week in an email from the White House. The response was written by Stanislaus, Assistant Administrator of the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER).
The response seemed to echo the EPA’s historic support for reuse of coal ash—a level of industry support that has actually drawn criticism from EPA’s own Office of Inspector General. Nevertheless, the agency has been in no hurry to reconsider its long-held position—formalized in a 2000 Regulatory Determination—that beneficial use of coal ash is not harmful.
Source: OIG analysis of EPA C2P2 data
|Note: Numbers indicate total tons for each type of beneficial use.|
In July 2011, for example, Stanislaus told OIG that his office would replace its “previous national promotional efforts” on behalf of beneficial use with “an effort to identify a process to determine if a beneficial use of CCR is safe.”
He added, however, that that process would await the final CCR rule, for which there was no deadline.
Signs of Movement?
Now, however, that may be changing.
Stanislaus’ response last week to the coal-ash proponents says that the EPA is close to completing “a methodology for evaluating the environmental acceptability of coal ash that is beneficially used.” The report will be made public this spring, Stanislaus said.
“The implementation of this methodology is intended to provide greater assurance to industry and the public that the safe beneficial reuse of coal ash continues to be environmentally and economically sound,” he adds.
Stanislaus also reiterates that neither of the two options outlined in the 2010 proposed rule “would regulate coal ash that is beneficially used.”
And he sounds a sympathetic note: “As the EPA has stated previously, we strongly support the safe and protective beneficial use of coal ash, and recognize that many environmental and economic benefits are gained, including the potential for job growth.
“We also recognize that many of the businesses that are involved in the recycling of coal ash are small businesses.”
The response pledges to “carefully consider input” from all “affected stakeholders as we continue our work to provide clear and sensible approaches for coal ash disposal that protect neighboring communities while also encouraging beneficial use of this material.”
The Road to a Rule
The effort to regulate coal ash follows a massive 2008 spill of fly ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority plant in Kingston, TN. The spill flooded more than 300 acres of land and flowed into two rivers.
The abrasives industry notes that boiler slag and coal ash are a different type of CCR from fly ash and contends that the proposed rule is an overly broad reaction to a single incident.
In any case, the rule has followed a long road. Eight public hearings on the hotly debated proposal were held in the fall of 2010.
Also that fall, EPA issued a “Notice of Data Availability on CCR Surface Impoundments,” followed by a comment period.
A year later, it issued a second Notice of Data Availability, this one involving additional information related to the proposed rule. The October 2011 notice included data on CCR chemicals, facility management, current state oversight, beneficial use and alleged damage cases. That comment period closed Nov. 14, with no further word until now.